Last month at the United Nations General Assembly, several Muslim-majority countries pushed for the implementation of a so-called “blasphemy ban,” with countries like Iran arguing that religiously insensitive language should be classified as “hate speech” and banned under international regulations.
The U.N rightly did not enact this unprecedented attack on one of our most fundamental rights – at least for now.
Yet, the fact that such an outrageous proposal could even be seriously considered speaks volumes about the fierce global debate underway regarding the proper bounds of free speech in the 21st century. It’s a conversation Arizonans should watch with great interest, because it deals with our most fundamental of rights.
“What is freedom of expression?” the author Salman Rushdie once pondered. “Without the freedom to offend, it ceases to exist.” And he is correct. The heart of this debate mostly turns on whether or not individuals have the right to say or write things that might offend others. In America and across the Western world, we firmly believe that, yes, individuals do have that right. Abolitionists had the right to insult proponents of slavery. Civil-rights leaders had the right to hurt the feelings of segregationists. Radicals had the right to harshly criticize American society in the 1960s, and they continue to have that right today.
Without the right to offend, women would not have achieved the vote and millions of Americans might still be living separate-and-not-so-equal lives. Europe might still be ruled by clerics and in the business of burning heretics. The rhetoric that led to all of these changes was deeply offensive to many at the time – should we have banned it?
The answer, obviously, is no. And religion is no different. Newspapers and citizens in free societies have the right to criticize political, cultural, and religious figures – and they have rarely shied away from doing so. I am a Christian, and I do not wish to see my religion mocked; at the same time, I strongly support the right of journalists and artists who choose to do just that. Some of their criticism, as you know, is quite scathing. But by opening up society and religion to free and open debate, we provide avenues to self-reflection and reform.
Several years ago, a small Danish newspaper hoped to spark a dialogue on the proper bounds of free speech by publishing cartoons that depicted the prophet Mohammed. As you may remember, that led to violent riots by some in the Middle East who objected to the illustrations as blasphemous; they demanded that the Danish prime minister apologize for the offense and punish those responsible.
He refused to do either at the time. Nor should he have.
I wish the Obama Administration had followed his example in dealing with the violence in Egypt and Libya. Its first reaction was to blame a video for the violence rather than the terrorists who used that video as an excuse for their actions. Even worse, American taxpayer dollars were used to fund commercials in Pakistan denouncing this fringe video. The president eventually made the point at the United Nations that no offensive “speech” can ever justify violence, but not before sending his U.N. ambassador to every television network to blame the video, rather than Islamist terrorists, for the death of our ambassador to Libya.
In any event, at least for now, the U.N. will not take the position of radical Muslim states that any criticism of their faith should be punished. Think about how wrong it would be to allow countries like Iran – which has almost no protections for freedom of speech, and which sentenced the aforementioned Salman Rushdie to death for simply writing a book – to decide which topics should and should not be acceptable for public debate. Not only would that deny a basic freedom, it would make it more difficult to defeat the religious-based premise of radical political Islam.